Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The champagne goes flat

A novelty of a scoreline, but one which was greeted with the same old sense of frustration at a missed opportunity.

Our last goalless draw with West Brom had come 81 years ago, and with the Premiership's two most porous defences on display, who would have bet on that being the outcome of Monday night's game at The Hawthorns?

The loss of Bellamy with a knee injury (sound familiar?) prompted Souness, serving a one match touchline ban for his post-Fulham outburst, to give N'Zogbia his first Premiership start ahead of Milner and Ambrose. The 4-3-3 formation of recent matches was retained, Dyer taking up Bellamy's wide right forward position and N'Zogbia coming into midfield, but only to an extent - in reality, it was more like a 4-5-1 with Ameobi alone up front, being supported by onrushing midfielders.

The Baggies also opted to switch to a 4-3-3 formation of their own, with Robert Earnshaw lining up alongside Kanu and Geoff Horsfield up front. In the process, though, the clueless Captain Marvel handed us a boost by dropping Hungarian forward Zoltan Gera, their goalscorer and by some distance best player against Bolton on New Year's Day, and keeping talented playmaker Jason Koumas on the bench whilst populating the midfield with donkeys like Ronnie Wallwork and Riccardo Scimeca.

The clean sheet, obviously, was a cause for celebration, even against an attack which could be described as limp at best. No doubt spurred on by Souness's recent forays into the transfer market, Bramble turned in one of his best performances in a black and white shirt - defensively solid throughout, and remarkably accurate with his long left-footed passes out to Dyer on the right wing. He should have done much better with a fifth minute header from a brilliantly-flighted Robert free-kick, though - as it was, he simply planted the ball straight into Russell Hoult's midriff.

With our midfielders enjoying huge amounts of possession - primarily because their players were strangely content to let us dwell on the ball - and Ameobi causing havoc up front as against Arsenal (and being on the receiving end of numerous strongarm challenges from Darren Purse), the chances continued to come and go. Bowyer came closest, striking the post with a low shot from just outside the area, and Ameobi forced Hoult into a good diving save, whilst Bernard tried to buy a penalty that referee Neale Barry rightly refused to award.

For the Baggies, Wallwork's shot was parried by Given shortly before Kanu headed wide, and in the closing stages of the half the out-of-sorts Nigerian striker tamely prodded a presentable opportunity wide of the post.

That there was no score at half-time gave cause for concern, because we knew we wouldn't be allowed to dominate so much in the second period - and so it proved. West Brom came out more combative, and, though we continued to look sound at the back and retained the ball well, our attacks looked less potent. Ameobi faded, Robert didn't do enough and Dyer continually ran at the defence before taking on one defender too many. The one real bright spot was N'Zogbia, who built on the neat touches of the first half by scampering away quick-footed on the byline on a couple of occasions to set up decent chances for onrushing Newcastle players.

Despite our overall control of the game, though, Hoult was rarely tested, and indeed it was Given who was called upon to make the game's best save, sparing Hughes's blushes when Horsfield escaped his clutches and fired in a shot from close range. Earnshaw also had a decent chance at the far post late on. Meanwhile, for us substitute Milner, on for N'Zogbia, looked lively and a Robert thunderbolt near the final whistle almost provided a fairytale conclusion to a frustrating evening.

An away point can be regarded retrospectively as either good or bad - this one was definitely bad. I won't disrespect Baggies fans by prefacing what I'm about to say with "No disrespect to West Brom, but..." - on this form they are relegation fodder, a very poor side filled with cloggers, clunkers and hoofers that bring nothing to the Premiership.

However, the fact that we couldn't beat them does not reflect at all well on us. Even without Shearer, Kluivert and Bellamy we should have been able to score. Our recent inability to finish sides off with ruthlessness in front of goal suggests that perhaps Souness should be looking at our attacking options in the transfer window, as well as addressing the familiar defensive shortcomings.

Other reports: NUFC.com, Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian


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